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Notes on Japan: Boundaries


It is the privileged condition of the new visitor to notice the obvious -which soon becomes background. Sometimes the obvious carries great implications for the built environment and the relationship to nature and materials, which merit being teased out through the direct recording of first impressions. The following therefore represents a series of notes with regard to the question of limits.


Face

There is very little (almost no) physical contact between people in daily social life; there might be a handshake in a business context, otherwise a bow (many bows on departure): no touching on shoulders or elbows to reassure or assert, no pointing, no hugging, hardly any waving. The body remains rather mute. However, conversation -even with perfect strangers- involves standing still, facing each other, keeping eye contact, no masks, tics, grimaces, raised eyebrows: a transparent channel of communication which is astonishingly respectful and unguarded for a Westerner. (Imagine -by contrast- Sicily, with myriad inscrutable codes and facial gestures requiring Byzantine levels of initiation, where a mixed message -the wrong kind of frown- can spur violence.)


Urban buildings forming street frontage are also generally mute, underplayed, happy to be modest (but beautiful), grey weathered cypress, tile or plaster. Individualism is not really played out on the interior, either, with a declination of familiar spatial codes: we’re in this thing together. Nonetheless the act of entering private space is imbued with a significance which is singularly lacking in the West.


Feet / Skin

A baseline whose importance cannot be overstated -even when one has started to take it for granted- is the crossing of boundaries with feet, which must be unshod (and sometimes reshod differently, in toilets for example) many times a day. Quite apart from questions of cleanliness and maintenance, this gives a choreographic character to the crossing of any threshold from the quotidian to the domestic (or hieratic), and between different spaces of relation to the body. The threshold itself will always involve a change of material (mineral to wood in most cases) and very commonly a change of levels and direction. It does not, however, always involve the crossing of a vertical barrier: the envelope to be penetrated might be latent (the plane of an absent Shoji screen) or -at best- far more insubstantial than the shuffle-business given to the feet.


Far be it from me to add to the wealth of observations on the question of Ma (the in-between; see Augustin Berque, L’Ecoumene, 2000), and the conceptual contiguity of interior and exterior as a single environment. However -as an eco-sensitive Western observer- I cannot avoid mentioning a fundamental schism. For us, nature does not flow, it requires protection: we wrap our buildings in duvets, producing very thick skins from often lightweight materials, or chunky triple glazing where we still want to let in light or let the eye roam outside. During my orientation visit at the Villa Kujoyama I was informed that the five metre-high glass wall of my studio is double-glazed, which I found astonishing given that (pinched between two fingers) the glass is barely eight millimetres thick. My scepticism flustered the building manager, who returned with details: it has a 0.2 mm vacuum gap between two panes of glass and a U-value of 1.4, beating chunky western double glazing. The technology -as insubstantial as a shoji screen- is only available commercially in Asia at this point, and has some kinks to be worked out. There are tiny transparent dots in the micro-void which prevent the panes from imploding together; the dots form a grid which can arrest the eye. Widespread fire-rated glazing is typically wired rather than laminated (even in high-spec contemporary buildings), giving a similar micro-shrouding effect.


Otherwise (proud technology aside…) most buildings are barely -if at all- insulated. This is perhaps understandable in tight Tokyo lots (lose 50 cm in net width and the Triumph won’t fit under the porch…), but seems to be very common, especially in renovated houses, which often have a cursory 5 centimetres of duvet. Nevertheless, there are adaptations of thermal habit which are probably vastly more important: office buildings are cooled to only 26 degrees in summer and domestic space is regimented into thermal micro-zones with clothing (and generalised hot baths before bedtime) helping to regulate the body to a comfortable temperature. Just as with the careful control of shade and shadow, there is a totally different, nuanced approach to our universalised thermal table-rase of homogeneous comfort and summer air-conditioned chill.



Fence

Gardens exhibit a further preoccupation with subtly defined limits. In many cases there is a preoccupation with unfolding, with a sequenced reveal of spaces, hedges at entrances redirecting sight and passage, leaving the main view to be discovered fleetingly -say, whilst crossing a bridge- rather than exposed perspectively down an allee of trees. Fences play a vital role in this and their inventivity is rich and wonderful; they are an undeservedly unknown architectural type. Visiting the Katsura Detached Palace for the first time, I was unaware of the pivotal moment in the western tradition represented by Bruno Taut’s deeply emotional reaction to the borders of this amazing space. He burst into tears upon discovering the ingenious trained bamboo fence (the stalks are progressively bent downwards to a horizontal, the leaves are then trimmed on the outside to form a massive vegetal wall); this represented for him the abnegation of Western rationalism and a moment of personal liberation (a liberation from Japanese modernity re-channeled more recently by Kengo Kuma, who is somewhat obsessed with Taut’s Nippon-rupture with the 20th century). Maybe I’m less abnegated to start with, but I started jumping up and down with excitement instead, shouting for Kibo to come and see.





Bamboo boundary fence, Katsura Detached Palace.



Aside from this giant leafy wall there are myriad, ingenious ways of defining visual and choreographic limits with bamboo barriers -even on the LED-washed streets of Tokyo (see Isao Yoshikawa, Bamboo Fences, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009). In the case of Katsura they doubtless served to prevent intrusion by uninvited humans and animals who might -for example- mess up the exquisite shale promontory on the central lake. Great cypress-framed gates -diagonally braced from behind like film scenery- have dozens of possible ways of inserting half, quarter and whole bamboo rods to make a full barrier. Then there are the extraordinarily effective ankle-height suspended poles and arched strips poked onto the ground which delimit paths from inaccessible space with far more grace and directness than a high-vis, flashing, jobsworth elfansafety western barrier; a stone wrapped in string on a bridge or path has the same effect.


Then there are many degrees of fuzzy fences -using various thinner grades of bamboo twigs in a thatch, sometimes with the top fronds attached making a wavy boundary, sometimes much more disciplined. These are generically known as Taheko-Gaki. The town of Osawa in the Noto peninsula is completely shrouded in 3 metre-high Magaki -woody bamboo windbreaks- which protect the populace from the bitter winter sea breezes.



Bamboo urban windbreak, Noto peninsula.